Agrochemicals firm Syngenta has denied that employees of a Swiss factory it took over in the late 1990s suffer from cancer induced by an insecticide.
Swiss weekly L’Hebdo reported on Thursday that cases of bladder cancer around Monthey in canton Valais could be related to exposure to Galecron.
The insecticide, used mainly on cotton plants, was produced by Ciba-Geigy from 1966 to 1976, and from 1978 to 1988. It was taken off the market because of potential risks to users.
Chlordimeform, the active ingredient, is believed to have toxic effects on exposed individuals. According to the International Programme on Chemical Safety, available information supports a link between an increased incidence of bladder cancer and the substance.
Basel-based Syngenta was never involved in the production or sale of Galecron.
But it did take over the Monthey facility, where chlordimeform was produced.
According to L’Hebdo, the area around the factory has reported a larger than usual number of bladder cases. The only urologist in the region, Henri Bitschin, told the magazine that there had been 30 suspicious deaths in the past 20 years.
"I am sure this number is higher here than it is among similar populations," he said.
Bitschin admits, however, that his evaluation is not backed up by any statistics and he could not say whether the cases were linked to the production site.
The director of the Syngenta factory in Monthey says the company has been on the case since it took over from Ciba, and has pursued a health-screening programme for employees.
"Nine cases of bladder cancer have been considered to be work-related by a federal insurance scheme," said Mauricio Ranzi on Friday.
Ranzi added that current and former employees whose health was being monitored were aware of the reason behind the checks. According to the factory director, they have been advised of Galecron's possible link to cancer.
But former employees questioned by L’Hebdo said they had not been told of the precise reasons for the monitoring. Ranzi admitted that some workers who had retired before 1978 might not have been informed.
The head of the cantonal medical board believes there is nothing in the statistics to back up claims of more bladder cancer cases.
"The figures we have seen so far give us no reason to take any steps," said Georges Dupuis.
Dupuis said he would be keeping a closer eye on the issue over the next few years.
The unions are not satisfied with Syngenta’s response to the allegations made by L’Hebdo.
Unia, Switzerland’s biggest labour association, has promised to pay legal costs for any sick employees or the families of deceased workers if they want to launch a class-action suit against Syngenta.
The union’s local representative also wants to meet with the factory’s management to find out if there are other potential health problems.
This is not the first time Galecron has made headlines.
Syngenta’s predecessor, Ciba-Geigy, agreed to cover costs for health monitoring and treatment in the United States as part of an $80 million settlement agreement of class-action litigation involving the insecticide in Alabama in 1995.
The settlement included compensation for individuals found to be suffering from bladder disease. At the time, Ciba-Geigy stated that this settlement did not assign liability or wrongdoing to the company.
swissinfo with agencies
The merger of Switzerland's Ciba-Geigy and Sandoz gave birth to a number of new companies.
The biggest is Novartis, which is specialised in pharmaceuticals.
At the end of 1999, Novartis's agrochemicals business was merged with a division of the British-Swedish concern, Astra Zeneca, to become Syngenta.
Ciba Speciality Chemicals merged the fine-chemicals divisions of Ciba-Geigy and Sandoz.
In compliance with the JTI standards